A Mental Escape

Soccer behind bars provides relief from despair

Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that every person has the right to leisure. For many people, leisure consists of playing soccer, especially with goals, referees, out-of-bounds lines and other standard conditions — including opponents. These things are not so easy to get at the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP), I discovered when I came to play there as an outsider in a prison soccer match.

As he’s the only Peruvian inmate inside the OSP, Gianfranco Moreno Coraquillo goes by the name “Peru” on the soccer field. Coraquillo grew up loving soccer, even playing semi-professional for a few years in Lima before moving to the U.S. He plays basketball, too, but soccer is his favorite. He tells me, “Prison time is hard, really hard, but when I concentrate on playing soccer I forget I’m in prison.”

I now realize that we visitors, playing with inmate teams, were aiding and abetting Coraquillo’s mental prison escape, which has earned Coraquillo an MVP plaque in all three prison soccer tournaments this year, as well as three trophies for his team. He tells me his family and soccer are the two most important things in his life.

He laments that it’s been six years since he’s kicked a ball with his son and that he hasn’t been able to teach him to play soccer, but he looks forward to getting out and recompensing his family for their unwavering support while he’s in prison.

The benefits to prisoners of playing soccer (aka football) have been perhaps best described in Chuck Korr and Martin Close’s book, More Than Just a Game, about politcal prisoners’ struggle during apartheid to play the game on Robben Island, off the coast of South Africa:

The men’s fight to play league football was all about proving to themselves and to the prison regime that they were capable of organizing themselves, of acting with discipline, and of working in harmony together. It was about self-respect and developing a sense of community, despite everything. There were also the psychological aspects to consider … To survive and maintain some kind of emotional well-being, it was vital for the prisoners to keep physically and mentally active. 

Or, in the words of Nelson Mandela, who spent 18 years on the island:

Soccer can create hope where there was once despair … The energy, passion and dedication this game created made us feel alive and triumphant despite the situation we found ourselves in.

Inmate Grover Clegg is the president of the Athletic Club (AC) at the OSP in Salem, the state’s only maximum-security prison. He says he doesn’t know much about the game, but soccer is important for him as a means to integrate more inmates — especially Latino inmates — into the AC and the general OSP community.

Eight years ago, Clegg was elected president of the AC, and he has been reelected three times. When Clegg was elected president, the AC organized basketball and softball tournaments, as well as running races where outsiders could participate. Because several inmates already played intramural soccer, Clegg knew that many inmates would also like to play proper soccer matches against outsiders, so he and the rest of the AC Executive Committee decided to start organizing soccer tournaments with teams from outside the prison.

About fiver years ago, with the help of the AC staff advisor and West Salem High School girls soccer coach Jaime Rodriguez, John Crowder of Oregon Prison Ministries and other supporters, they began soliciting outsiders to bring teams to compete in their soccer tournaments.

In past years they haven’t always been able to get enough outsider teams, but Clegg says he is happy that this year they had at least two outsider teams in each of their three soccer tournaments. I was fortunate enough to participate because I play informal pick-up soccer with brothers Alex and Andy Zuñiga, who were invited to bring a team by Derek French, another AC supporter. Conner Cappelletti, assistant coach of Lane United FC, organized some players to play in a previous tournament. The main inmate squad is eager for good competition and hopeful that more outsiders will come next tournament.

The AC receives no financial support from the Department of Corrections. The AC gets some money and in-kind donations from outside supporters, but Clegg tells me that roughly half of their costs are covered by money raised from inmates who only earn between $30 and $75 a month.

Clegg mentions that inmates built the goals and the nets were donated, and he expresses gratitude that Rodriguez did such a great job of painting the out-of-bounds lines even while it was raining.

Bob Goggin plays on the second inmate team. He prefers other sports but still likes to play soccer. He is currently the AC meeting facilitator but has carried out other functions for the AC Executive Committee as well.

Goggins played several sports before going to prison so he says it was natural for him to get involved with the AC. “Playing sports is my outlet in here — you know, kicking a ball in here is just like kicking a ball out there,” he says. He also emphasizes the social benefits of the game: “You throw a ball on the field and you get guys who don’t talk to each other or don’t like each other and they start playing together, and that’s pretty cool.”

After each tournament, Clegg hands out trophies and thanks everyone for participating. Before the visiting players begin our exit from the prison yard, inmate players and visiting players shake hands, some hug, and many of the inmate players express their appreciation to the visiting players for coming in and playing in their tournament on an early Saturday morning.

I see the inmates are sincerely grateful for the opportunity to play a decent match of soccer with outsiders, and my outsider teammates all express satisfaction with the experience as well — a soccer tournament where everybody wins.

If you’d like to bring a team to play in OSP, contact Derek French at: dfrench@pacinfo.com. If you’d like to support the OSP Athletic Club, contact Jaime Rodriguez or Grover Clegg at (503) 378-2289.